Spotlight: Yvonne Wakabayashi
On Thursday September 20, fabric artist Yvonne Wakabayashi was among twenty five established and emerging Vancouver-based artists recognized for their contributions to the arts at the Mayor’s Arts Awards. Wakabayashi, who was recognized in the category craft and design, has been working with fabric for many years, primarily using a technique called Arashi shibori. The following conversation with Yvonne Wakabayashi was adapted from a previously published interview.
What inspired you to become a textile artist?
It must be part of my DNA as my mother was a dressmaker as well as three of my aunts. I grew up living behind my mother’s dressmaking shop, always surrounded by beautiful fabrics. My mother was very frugal and used scraps of leftover fabrics to create one-of-a-kind clothing for me; although as a teenager I dreamt of store bought clothes like the ones worn by my friends. Little did I realize how special my garments were . . . “made by hand with love and care.” I have the same feelings toward my art.
There are obvious connections between your identity as a Japanese Canadian and your work.
Being a Japanese Canadian during and after World War II was difficult, however through the arts and particularly through the textile medium I was able to discover my true identity. Multiculturalism was emphasized at the University of British Columbia in Art Education and I was encouraged by Professor Gouldstone to pursue further studies in Japan to enrich and expand my learning and to teach and share with students and like-minded colleagues.
You talk in your writing about attending a workshop by Hiroyuki Shindo in 1983 and the profound impact it had on your artistic practice.
Spending an extended period of time in Japan and particularly during field study trips, the opportunity to study with a master indigo dyer and contemporary shibori artist, Mr Shindo, instilled pride in my heritage with its rich textile traditions offered to fellow craftspeople and artists.
You work in Arashi shibori. What is that exactly?
Arashi shibori is only one of the many techniques under the umbrella of shibori. Shibori is a resistance technique of tying or binding to resist dyes from the cloth thus creating patterns much like tie and dye. With Arashi shibori, fabric is wrapped around a pole secured tightly with string. The string prevents dye penetration and the result is a linear dyed design left on the fabric. Summer kimonos were traditionally dyed in indigo on cotton fabric. This has been modified by contemporaries. My preference is silk with its lustre and drape, especially when the fabric is compressed on the pole resulting in a pleated surface when dried. This pleated texture, colour gradation and drape are important to me for creating wearables as well as with some wall pieces.
The excitement of shibori is in the endless combination of stitching, binding, pole-wrapping, clamping with the countless variables of colour, cloth and personal input. I have tried natural fabrics, synthetics with different dyestuffs. As with fashion and seasons and new discoveries in new fibre, it is always a challenge to generate new ideas.
For my sculptural pieces, I have used a special silk from Kiryu, Gunma Prefecture in Japan, at the Koshimitsu mill with a long family history of producing exquisite fabrics. The silk that I use comes in its raw state with the sericin gum left in, leaving it malleable and able to hold its form when tied and bound in shapes which are assembled into a sculptural form.
Although I have experimented with many man-made materials, I am still drawn to the natural materials. With multimedia, I have combined plastics and resin but only in the presentation and finishing to achieve a certain feeling in the piece. Fine nylon monofilament is chosen to add a weightless, fragile and ethereal result.
The sea forms, the fauna and the flora of the sea, seem to be a major source of inspiration.
Living on the water’s edge and spending much time near lakes and ocean, I am in awe of the beauty and the fragility of our land and sea life. I attempt to capture the essence of sea forms with the aesthetics inherited from my mother. I am recording what I have learned from her. My mother was trained in ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) and ochanoyu (Japanese Tea Ceremony) before she immigrated to Canada and she continued these traditional arts in Canada. She was a teacher at the Japanese Language School here in Vancouver, BC before the war. I feel that I have in some ways followed in her footsteps teaching and creating in textiles.
What are your other sources of inspiration?
I find that the theme of “water” and “sea” keeps me focused. Many other related themes grow out of this. In searching for ideas I feel that I can then go to my own limited stored resources which I refer to as my “image bank.” This can include sketchbook ideas, reference books, and more personally—oral stories of my grandfather, a fisherman in the Sea of Seto in Japan which resulted in a wall piece for my family.
Your sculptural work is really feminine, graceful, light, pure . . .
This feeling of light, elegance and purity is what I try to capture. I think fragile and ephemeral is also what I try to achieve but actually I acquire this feeling through the choice of fibre, materials and perhaps lack of colour.
Your sculptural pieces are primarily in white or neutral colours—why is this?
Over time and with experience I have worked so much with colour and dyes that I have found the natural colour expresses the idea more directly and simply. There is beauty focusing on the fibre, weave and just the work and appreciation of the weaver’s craft.
Your work has a fragility to it, but also a kind of strength —can you talk about that?
In my more recent work I have used pina or pineapple fibre and it is very stiff but still pliable. I use a stiffening agent to add durability to withstand the function of mounting on walls. The loosely woven fabric creates that lightness of weight and allows light to pass through suggesting a fragile appearance. Functionality is still most important in art and life. In fact, sea life appears fragile but is also very strong.
Along with your textile sculptures, you make wearable and wall pieces. Do you create on command for fashion shops and art galleries?
In the past I have created wearables on demand or for exhibitions and for galleries but now with limited time, I prefer to do exhibition pieces or just what I have in my heart and head.
What are your upcoming projects? How do you want your work to evolve?
As time allows, I will spend time in my studio between art wearables and sculptural pieces. The work which gives me the most satisfaction has been personal family pieces. I have used my mother’s kimono remnants and her old calligraphy drawings collaged with my screen-printed fabric. Often the imagery is of my family members and places on the map of our ancestral home in Japan.
Titles of pieces like Tides of Life and Islands of Seto, Ancestral Home still keep within the theme of the sea in combination with family members. The collaging of my mother’s work and mine is like the fusion of east and west, old and new and establishes my identity as a Canadian of Japanese origin.